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Nuclear accident underscores safety crisis.

The accident at the Tokaimura nuclear site in Japan at the end of September exposes once again the lack of an adequate safety culture in Japan, says Greenpeace.

Ironically, the explosion and contamination of workers at the government run site northeast of Tokyo, happened less than 24 hours before the arrival of a shipment of weapons-usable plutonium at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. The plutonium shipment is now at the center of a scandal due to the producers of the fuel, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), having admitted to falsifying important safety data during production. The owners of the Takahama reactor are investigating the scandal, but Greenpeace believes that they are still trying to limit the investigation and ignoring basic safety standards.

"Whether it is the Japanese government, BNFL or Kansai Electric [KEPCO, operators of the Takahama plant], all have a vested commercial interest in ignoring expensive safety standards: [The] accident at Tokaimura confirms our fears: the entire safety culture within Japan is in crisis and the use of dangerous plutonium in reactors here will only increase the probability or a nuclear catastrophe", says Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

The Tokaimura site has a range of nuclear facilities, including a plutonium reprocessing plant that suffered a fire and explosion in April 1997, which at the time was Japan's most serious accident. The operators of the plant are currently considering reopening the plant later this year, despite having no need for any more plutonium. Japan currently has a stockpile of over five tonnes of plutonium in Japan, with a further 30 tonnes in Europe, awaiting to be shipped to Japan.

Meanwhile, dozens of people were treated for radiation exposure after the Tokaimura explosion, including two of the workmen present when the accident happened. Others included firefighters and ambulance attendants who first answered the alarm call and workers from a nearby golf course.

Working through the night, nuclear technicians were able to drain coolant water that had helped feed a "chain reaction" of uranium that sent radiation levels near the reprocessing plant to 15,000 times normal amounts.

The accident is being investigated. But Japanese nuclear industry officials admit to having no answers on the potential long-term effects of the incident.

After the accident, 300,000 people living in the area were told to remain indoors. They were also told that any clothes worn during evening rain showers in the area should be washed and that locally grown vegetables should not be harvested.

The accident is believed to have started when an employee at the facility, which reprocesses uranium into pellets for use in nuclear power plants, had loaded 16 kg of uranium into a container, nearly eight times the normal amount. This may have created a "critical mass" allowing a nuclear reaction to start in a way similar to what occurs in a nuclear power plant.

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Publication:Natural Life
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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